Bulls lifted nation's spirits
Cape Town - The Bulls, in the final game of the latest Super Rugby round, gave South Africa the sporting tonic it needed on Saturday after a rough few days.
Coming so hot on the heels of the Proteas’ sickening semi-final defeat to New Zealand at CWC 2015, it was at least comforting that the Pretoria-based side could pull back some measure of bilateral pride by seeing off the seven-time champion Crusaders 31-19 at Loftus – and being good value for it after a refreshingly high-tempo affair.
Rugby bragging rights between the two countries this year had also been leaning pretty strongly the NZ way ahead of the clash: sides from their conference were leading 7-4 in victories, with three of the South African wins having come against the lame Blues, still bottom of the overall standings and the only remaining side without a triumph.
The situation had not been helped by two earlier results on Saturday, with the Chiefs predictably beating the travelling Cheetahs and then the Highlanders inflicting a second successive setback on the Stormers with surprising comfort in Dunedin.
We were given little reason to rejoice, either, in the game immediately preceding the Loftus fixture as the Sharks stumbled their way to a 15-9 home win against limited Australian outfit the Force, only hitting the lead for the first time in the 64th minute and again looking all too short of championship mettle.
So it really was up to the Bulls to make amends, and that they could pull it off against a galaxy of All Black luminaries like Kieran Read, Richie McCaw, Owen Franks, Sam Whitelock, Dan Carter and Israel Dagg only made the result that much sweeter.
It was a massive turnaround in both commitment and competency terms from last week’s fortuitous theft of the spoils from the Force, and perhaps this was the game that will finally have woken the Bulls to the realisation of how far they could go with the personnel at their disposal after a really bad start to the season.
“There was a real attitude to compete today by the Bulls ... it was a fine team performance,” said SuperSport expert and former coach Nick Mallett in summary.
Only adding to the merit of the win was the impediment of being forced into two eleventh-hour changes to the XV, as two Boks in Jan Serfontein and Arno Botha pulled out and rookies Burger Odendaal and Hanro Liebenberg hastily entered the mix.
It seemed a tall order for a 21-year-old and 19-year-old respectively, but instead they were heavily responsible, in their own ways, for lighting the Bulls’ fire on the night.
The Brackenfell-born Liebenberg made his physical presence felt, and two early charge-downs he managed helped set the tone for the errors the home team would continually force the ‘Saders into as their free-flowing style was disrupted time and time again.
As for Odendaal, he was something of a revelation at inside centre after several rather sterile appearances from Serfontein, and presents a healthy problem when the latter is suitably fit again.
Although he also used bodily power to good effect, Odendaal showed welcome trickery and elusiveness on the attack as the Bulls gave as good as they got at times in easy-on-the-eye raids on the enemy line.
The Bulls hoisted themselves to second on the SA conference table – on a day when the once pace-setting Stormers slipped two positions – but actually seem better-placed than new leaders the Sharks, as they are only one point shy with a game in hand.
It is a relatively tight squeeze between all five teams, with the Lions bursting into contention courtesy of their fabulous, three-from-four overseas tour and even the basement Cheetahs not wholly out of the picture – they are 10 points off the Sharks but have a match in hand.
Hopefully a good Easter Saturday crowd will pitch up in Johannesburg for the Lions’ inviting “homecoming” derby against the Bulls, although there are other good clashes featuring SA sides as the chastened Crusaders move onward to Durban and the Stormers, rocked by losses without any log points at all to the Chiefs and now Highlanders, on Good Friday face the demanding task of trying to derail the rampant, unbeaten Hurricanes at the Cake Tin.
The Sharks may have to take their cue from the Bulls, who were unrecognisable from the team which had also made such heavy weather of downing the Force, as they take their own crack now at the men from Canterbury.
They will be relieved to welcome back rested kingpins like Marcell Coetzee, Pat Lambie and Cobus Reinach after a game in which versatile Frans Steyn was poor, frankly, in the flyhalf jersey and needs to revert to No 12 – if SANZAR fail to get their way, of course, in possibly seeking tougher punishment for his role in a tip-tackle last week.
Next round of matches (home teams first):
Friday: Hurricanes v Stormers; Rebels v Reds. Saturday: Chiefs v Blues; Brumbies v Cheetahs; Sharks v Crusaders; Lions v Bulls. Byes: Highlanders, Waratahs, Force.
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